Sub Zapper

Here’s a simple way to deal with enemy submarines — hang giant electromagnets over the sides of your ship:

The magnets being projected outwardly from the ship’s sides, a submarine within the fields of the magnets is attracted and drawn thereto until the glass caps are struck by the submarine and broken. The contacts will now be against the submarine which will close the circuit through the submarine, lighting the lamp and ringing the signal bell, thus notifying the crew of the ship of the capture of the submarine. The submarine will also be electrified, shocking the crew thereof and killing or rendering them temporarily helpless.

Inventor Louis Schramm offered the scheme in 1914. I don’t know whether anyone tried it out. Let’s hope not.

Planting One’s Feet

George Meacham invented this convenient planting device in 1856. Strap a seed bag to your waist and a plunger to each boot and you can plant corn effortlessly while strolling in your fields.

And maybe afterward you can dispense popcorn at the campfire.

Hair Today …

In 1943, Colorado broom factory worker Mary Babnik Brown saw an advertisement in a Pueblo newspaper soliciting blond hair, at least 22 inches long, that had not been treated with chemicals or hot irons. Brown had never cut her hair, which she combed twice a day and washed twice a week with pure soap. When her samples were deemed acceptable, she cut off all 34 inches and sent it in, considering this her contribution to the war effort, though “I cried for two months.”

At the time she was told that her hair would be used in meteorological instruments. It wasn’t until 1987, the year of her 80th birthday, that she learned that it had been used in the Norden bombsight, a top-secret instrument that guided bombs to their targets. Engineers had determined that fine blond human hair worked ideally in crosshairs, but the technology was a closely guarded secret, so the donors weren’t told how their contributions would be used. “I couldn’t believe it when they told me,” Brown said. “All I knew was that they needed virgin hair.”

She did get some compensation: Pueblo declared Nov. 22, 1991, “Mary Babnik Brown Day,” she was inducted into the Colorado Aviation Historical Society’s hall of fame, and Ronald Reagan sent her this letter:

Bounce Check

Speaking of ship strandings, Charles Dornfeld offered this novel solution in 1902. Each steamship would be fitted with a giant spring-loaded plunger; if the ship strikes a solid object, the plunger will cushion its stop and automatically reverse the engines, sending the ship backward out of danger.

“As soon as she is backed off the springs 10 and 16 restore the plunger 8 and head 15 to their normal positions ready for like service upon the next occasion.”

High and Dry

In 1859, Irish priest Edward James Cordner reflected that most strandings of sailing vessels occurred on a lee shore; that is, the wind was blowing inland from the vessel’s location. This gave him an inspired idea: If the ship carried a selection of kites, these could be attached one to another and payed out until they sailed steadily over the land, and the line might then support a sort of gondola that could ferry crew and cargo to safety.

When a sufficient power of elevation and traction has been attained, a light boat of basketwork or other material, capable of containing one or more persons, is attached to the suspending rope of the last kite, more rope is then veered away and the light boat with its cargo will eventually reach the land without any chance of its being submerged in the sea, no matter how great may be the elevation of the waves.

It’s not known whether Cordner’s idea was ever adopted, but he does seem to have tried it out: In his 1894 Progress in Flying Machines, Octave Chanute reports that “it was tested by transporting a number of persons purposely assembled on a rock off the Irish coast, one at a time, through the air to the main land, quite above the waves, and it was claimed that the invention of thus superposing kites so as to obtain great tractive power was applicable to various other purposes, such as towing vessels, etc.”

The Wheel Cipher

Thomas Jefferson, already absurdly accomplished by 1795, somehow found time to delve into cryptography, where he devised this cipher system. The letters of the alphabet are printed along the rim of each of 36 disks, which are stacked on an axle. One party rotates the disks until his message can be read along one of the 26 rows of letters, somewhat like a modern cylindrical bike lock. Now he can record the letters in any one of the other 25 rows and send that string safely to another party, who decodes it by reversing this procedure. If the message is intercepted, it’s useless even to someone who has the disks, because he must also know the order in which to stack them, and 36 disks can be stacked in 371,993,326,789,901,217,467,999,448,150,835, 200,000,000 different ways.

This is pretty robust. The cipher below, created in 1915 by U.S. Army cryptographer Joseph Mauborgne, has never been solved. “The known systems from this year (or earlier) shouldn’t be too hard to crack with modern attacks and technology,” writes NSA cryptologist Craig P. Bauer. “So, why don’t we have a plaintext yet? My best guess is that it used a cipher wheel” like Jefferson’s.

mauborgne cipher

(L. Kruh, “A 77-year-old challenge cipher,” Cryptologia, 17(2), 172-174, 1993, quoted in Bauer’s Secret History: The Story of Cryptology, 2013.)

Through the Motions

This “device for teaching swimming,” patented by James Emerson in 1896, teaches good technique mechanically. The teacher places the machine in a swimming pool or open water, the student climbs aboard, the teacher turns crank handle 13, and the machine guides the student through the motions of swimming, “these arm movements being so nearly like those performed by an actual swimmer that the beginner who has these movements mechanically imparted to her arms thereby shortly acquires the swimming arm stroke.” What could go wrong?

Moonlight Towers

When electricity became widely available in the late 19th century, some American cities put it to its fullest use: They replaced the moon.

Fitted with powerful carbon arc lamps, “moonlight towers” could illuminate a city’s streets “brightly enough to read a watch from as far away as 1,500 feet.” At first they were greeted as symbols of progress: A visitor declared the citizens of Aurora, Ill., to be “in a state of delighted enthusiasm over the splendid practical results,” and one Detroit resident reported that “the foliage is weird and beautiful. All places within the scope of light are bathed in the faint but fairy-like illumination of the moon in its first quarter.”

But in time residents found that simple streetlights provided better illumination and eliminated the disorienting shadows cast by an artificial moon. Most of the old installations have been dismantled, but 17 of the original 31 towers in Austin, Texas, are still in use — the 165-foot landmarks have stood since 1895, and have been listed since 1976 on the National Register of Historic Places.

Rising Above

This is rather unpleasant. In 1883 John Fleck patented a “life-saving apparatus for privy-vaults,” “to provide a means of escape from the vaults should a person by accident fall therein.”

Apparently this was a problem. “In various sections of the United States deep vaults are commonly used, generally constructed of masonry, and, as is often the case, they are but imperfectly covered or otherwise protected at the top to guard against persons falling therein.”

Fleck’s solution is basically a ladder set into the wall of the vault. Good for him, I guess. I hope he wasn’t inspired by some personal tragedy.


At left is the official White House portrait of John Quincy Adams, painted by George Peter Alexander Healy. At right is a daguerreotype of Adams in 1843, when he became the first president to be photographed.

In a diary entry for Aug. 1, 1843, Adams noted that four daguerreotypes had been taken and pronounced them “all hideous.” Three more were taken the following day, but he found them “no better than those of yesterday. They are all too true to the original.”

That raises an interesting question: Which of these images is the more revealing record of the man? In Puzzles About Art, philosopher Matthew Lipman asks, “Which would we rather have, a portrait of Socrates by Rembrandt or a photograph of Socrates?”